A Draft Full Of High Hopes

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 8, 2007

The Washington Nationals took Ross Detwiler with the sixth overall pick in the baseball draft yesterday and immediately named him as their starting pitcher in the World Series. General Manager Jim Bowden didn't specify whether he'd pitch Game 1. And he was vague on the year, or the decade. But you can count on it. Pretty much. Well, sort of.

"We're very, very excited. We all know how you win in October -- with left-handed pitching," Bowden said after choosing the southpaw from Missouri State despite his losing record (4-5) this season.

"You are going to need someone like this in postseason," said scouting director Dana Brown, who saw Detwiler pitch on "a 35-degree day" in a raw wind and also thought "October." Or, perhaps, January in Antarctica.

Then, with the 31st overall pick, received as part of their compensation for Alfonso Soriano, the Nats took another lefty, a high schooler named Josh Smoker who pitched all of 79 innings this season. "We're extremely, extremely excited," said Bowden, who is fairly excited if his alarm clock goes off on time in the morning. "Smoker has top-of-the-rotation, dominant stuff. He's a special guy we didn't think would drop this far. . . . In our opinion, he's one of the top 15 in the country."

So pencil in the aptly named Smoker for the home opener in that future World Series.

We know these Nats picks will be superstars because Bowden has amassed an armada of proven talent evaluators, including Mike Rizzo, Brown, Bob Boone and Chuck LaMar. "I've never been around such brilliant minds," he said.

An hour later, the Nats selected Michael Burgess, 18, who hit a 473-foot home run over the 60-foot-high center field wall in Sarasota's Smith Stadium, a blast only equaled by Ken Griffey Jr., Bo Jackson, Frank Thomas (and Roy Hobbs).

Every team falls in love with its own picks and thinks its rankings are smarter than anybody else's. But by nightfall, the Nats' front office practically needed sedation. According to President Stan Kasten, the team's top three picks, including Burgess, the 49th pick, were in the Nats' top 20. "There was a big cheer when we knew we'd get Burgess," Kasten said. Even pick Nos. 67 and 70 were graded in Washington's top 30. "You have to discount any team's enthusiasm," Kasten said. "But we're really happy."

Bowden has every right to act like a kid who just hijacked Santa's sleigh. All day he was so excited that, when Kasten looked in the draft-room refrigerator, he gasped, "Please God, don't let Jim have a Red Bull." After suffering the penury of Marge Schott in Cincinnati, Bowden now enjoys the largesse of the Lerner family, which while slashing the payroll, has gone first-cabin on player development.

In the Nats' Grand Plan, no day on the calendar approaches the importance of draft day. As Atlanta GM John Schuerholz has written, the strategic core of the Braves' long run as a contender has been to build enormous inventory in their farm system. Then you can trade multiple prospects, about whom there is always doubt, for proven major leaguers about whom there are no questions. Cynics should note, on a day when the Nats used Detwiler's name in the same sentence with Ron Guidry and Satchel Paige, that there's no harm in hyping the new products on your shelf -- in case you ever want to trade them.

A more candid view of the draft would probably rank it right next to the ring toss and three-card monte as a con job. It looks easy. But in reality, it's brutally hard. One fact sums it up: Since '65, only three of the sport's No. 1 overall draft picks are currently worthy of Cooperstown -- Griffey, Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez. Roughly half of all No. 1 overall picks were close to worthless. You're just as likely to select a legend where the Nats picked: Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield were all picked sixth.

In fact, the players picked in the 6th, 31st, 49th, 67th and 70th slots -- the Nats' first five draft positions -- in '99, '01, '02 and '03 did not generate a single player that an average fan would ever have heard of. Near-total busts. But '00 was good, producing four useful big leaguers: Rocco Baldelli, Aaron Heilman, Xavier Nady and Chad Qualls.

As Washington will learn over the years, the baseball draft is a far different animal than the NFL or NBA drafts, after which the Redskins and Wizards have a fairly sensible idea of what they have just acquired. In baseball, you realize that your odds -- on any one specific pick -- aren't very good. Yet you also know that a couple dozen superior players are always available, lurking somewhere in the first 100 picks. The job is to find them. Five years ago, the Royals took decent pitcher Zack Greinke with the sixth pick. Later in that first round, other teams gobbled up Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Joe Blanton, Jeff Francoeur, Jeremy Guthrie, Nick Swisher, Scott Kazmir and Khalil Greene.

Over the years, two factors have mattered most with high baseball selections -- the quality of a team's scouting and the quantity of its picks in the first three rounds. That's why the Nats are so giddy. Nobody has scouts with fancier pedigrees than the Nats. And nobody had as many high picks as the Nats.

Will those choices be a hit or miss, especially because the first two bullets were spent on pitchers, who are notoriously hard to project, rather than on quality college hitters, who tend to pan out? The Nats made it fairly clear that, as much as they liked Detwiler, they'd have probably preferred any of the top three hitters taken in the draft if they still had been available.

Maybe the Nats simply remember the Expos' lousy luck when using sixth overall picks on pitchers. In '99 and '01, Montreal took hurlers in that slot who were total busts -- Josh Girdley and Josh Karp. (Don't tell Josh Smoker.) Soon after, other teams absconded with Barry Zito, Ben Sheets, Brett Myers, Jeremy Bonderman and Noah Lowry.

For now, Bowden certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt. Since he's come to town, he's been hot. After taking Ryan Zimmerman with the fourth pick in '05, he took Chris Marrero (15th overall) in '06. With 53 RBI and 13 homers in 54 games this season, he has the best power numbers of any 18-year-old at the A-Ball level since A-Rod.

For baseball lifers, draft day is like Opening Day -- full of infinite promise with curmudgeons banished for the day. Boone captures that mood of almost ludicrous hope: "I asked Bowden, 'Jim, do we need a pitcher Sunday against the Twins?' "

"You put Detwiler out there on the mound today and he would not embarrass you. He might not win, but you'd say, 'That's a major league pitcher.'

"That's not what we'll do with him, of course. But I caught a lot of games from a guy who had a [slender] frame like his when he came out of high school. Then that guy got bigger and stronger and his stuff got even better."

He was talking about Steve Carlton.

Welcome to draft day, when every pick is at least as good as a Hall of Famer.

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